By Arukaino Umukoro
Even the best local pundits did not believe Stephen Keshi, coach of the Super Eagles, would get this far. After all, the last set, the much praised golden generation, which won the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Tunisia 1994, took five years to build. In contrast, Keshi’s Eagles had roughly five to six weeks. Also, the fact that notable names such as Osaze Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins, Shola Ameobi, Danny Shittu, Obinna Nsofor, Taye Taiwo et al did not make the final cut gave reasons for apprehension among Eagles’ faithful and neutrals.
But the coach had always been full of confidence in his Eagles’ project. “I have the frame of the team I want and I believe that the squad we have selected for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations is good enough. What we need is chemistry. Once we have that, we’ll be okay going forward and all the way,” he said on the eve of the competition.
Fast forward three weeks after. Even the most pessimistic football loving Nigerian has been transformed into a true believer. National faith in Keshi has hit the rooftops as many now feel that Afcon 2013 might just be the making of the next golden generation of the Super Eagles.
The good thing about this is that Keshi, as well as his assistant Daniel Amokachi, was a member and captain of the last golden generation - the 1994 Eagles team. That team, bleeding with class everywhere, also went on to dazzle the world at the FIFA World Cup USA 1994, where they got to the second round.
Now the captain has become the field marshal, poised to conquer the continent with his glory chasing soldiers. The 1994 set was the standard which others after them have failed to meet. As it stands now, Keshi’s team is in pole position to equal it and probably raise it further. He is the second Nigerian coach, after Adegboye Onigbinde in 1984, to reach an Afcon final. Interestingly, Keshi was also assistant to Jo Bonfrere when the Eagles reached the 2000 final in Lagos, where they lost to Cameroon on penalty kicks. Besides, he is the third player from that 1994 golden generation to become coach (alongside Austin Eguavoen and Samson Siasia). This means that no matter what happens in Sunday’s final, it would be recorded that Keshi succeeded where others failed.
All things being equal, he looks good to become the first ever to win it. And if he gets lucky, again, he would also make history as the second man to win it both as a player and a coach, the first being Mahmoud El Gohary who led Egypt to the Afcon title in 1998.
While the final against Burkina Faso would be a tricky tie, these new-look Super Eagles smell the scent of victory like blood to a vampire. Only the resurgent Stallions, whose objective before the tournament was to win a game at least, could stop them from flying.
If experience counts also, Keshi has some on his side. First he took an unfancied Togo team to the 2006 Fifa World Cup for the first time in their history. Then, he guided Mali to the Afcon in 2010, where they were eliminated in the group stages. Interestingly, his Afcon 2013 Super Eagles team were also on the verge of elimination before two Victor Moses penalties in their last group match against Ethiopia delivered them into the quarter finals. Since then, the team has grown in confidence and proved the doubting Thomases wrong.
Now, 19 years after winning the trophy in Tunisia and 13 years after their last appearance in an Afcon final, the Super Eagles can finally stand up and be counted in South Africa.
Waiting to be king again | Stephen Keshi on the cusp of history
Like midfielder John Obi Mikel rightly noted, Keshi could be said to be a lucky coach. Indeed. The Eagles’ lucky charms seem to have been the enterprising Moses and striker Emmanuel Emenike, who might finish the tournament as the highest goal scorer - just like the late Rashidi Yekini did in 1994. However, beside Moses and Emenike, any of the players could be the joker in the final. They proved this with their display of teamwork and purposeful football in the semi-finals, where they took Mali to the cleaners. This team may have come of age in so short a time simply because Keshi is blessed with 23 determined players, brimming with passion and potentials, hungry enough to make their Fatherland proud, who can’t wait to get their hands on the Afcon trophy.
“We have real expectation of winning. From the moment we qualified, we knew we were capable of winning it. So, our expectation is to win the trophy and make Nigerians happy,” said Keshi before the tournament kicked off.
In November 2011 when the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) appointed him as coach of the Eagles, Keshi’s coaching contract included a condition that he must qualify for South Africa 2013 and reach the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Not only has he surpassed the first, he may go on to do the same with the second if they let him continue his rebuilding efforts.
More especially as his Eagles team have improved with every match, maturing into a fine blend, like vintage wine. While he may need to do more on improving their tactical discipline, Keshi and his evolving team are well on the threshold of making golden history. Barring the upset of upsets, with over 160 million Nigerians cheering and thousands more inside Soccer City, Johannesburg, the 51 year-old and his Super Eagles team would be crowned African champions on Sunday.